Let's face it: There aren't many things in the course of an average day that will make New Yorkers stop and stare. A loud car crash or a couple fighting outside a bar might earn a two- to five-second glance; the sighting of a C-list celebrity like Monica Lewinsky or Jenny McCarthy, maybe 20. Perhaps this seen-it-all attitude is why so few Lower East Side shoppers and residents are pausing to gawk at Seattle's Catheters, currently standing half-naked on Manhattan's busy Ludlow Street. And for that, the bashful group seems awfully grateful.
The raucous young garage band—singer Brian Standeford, guitarist Derek Mason, bassist Leo Gebhardt, and drummer Davey Brozowski—is uncomfortably pinned against a graffitied wall shooting a pictorial for the U.K.'s NME. The band members, barely out of their teens, are stripped to the waist and forcing nervous smiles as a stylist spray paints them with sloppy black arrows.
Only the British press would put a band with the Catheters' buzz in such a simultaneously humbling yet elevated position. After all, the same music critics who loved Seattle's brain-suturing sounds during grunge's heyday are championing the Catheters with tabloid zeal worthy of a royal scandal. Mojo, The Face, Q, and NME have all raced to print glowing reviews of the group's second album (and its first for Sub Pop), Static Delusions and Stone-Still Days. The positive word of mouth doesn't stop there; the Catheters go on tour with Mudhoney in Europe next week, in what should be a perfect bill—a Big Brothers' mentoring session in caterwauling garage rock.
A lot of waiting and smoking ensues between shots. After about 45 minutes, the Catheters receive washcloths to remove the spray-painted stains, and with the exception of Davey—who performs shirtless and is used to the gaze of strangers at his uncovered nipples—all hurriedly don their T-shirts.
"That was so awful," Derek tells me as we walk over to the legendary Katz's Deli for a quick dinner. "I hope it didn't look too stupid."
I try to console them, offering that such street-side antics aren't considered so strange in N.Y.C. "That's not really what we're worried about," Leo says, digging into his $12 tongue sandwich. "I mean, a couple of minutes of being embarrassed is one thing, but I kinda hope they don't use those pictures. Everyone in the band is pretty shy, a little self-conscious."
It's a good bet that when the Catheters formed on Seattle's Eastside in 1995 (a fact they try time and time again to poke fun at; when I ask Leo where he lives, he says, "I live in the top of the Space Needle"), none of them ever envisioned touring America in a van, let alone sacrificing their mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-anymore stage persona for a bunch of wimpy photo assistants.
When we get to the band room in the basement of the Mercury Lounge, where they'll take the stage in a few hours, the typically quiet Derek offers his side of things. "I tried to refuse but that didn't go so hot," he says. "I said, 'I won't take my shirt off.'"
"Maybe you should speak up louder next time," Leo returns. "But you would've looked dumber if you'd left your shirt on, dude! We'd be all shirtless and you'd be the one saying, 'No, I'm too nervous to take mine off.' You're like the chubby kid who goes swimming with his shirt on and fucking looks sad." Derek looks up with a hurt expression.
"I'm trying to make you feel better, you sonofabitch!" Leo tells him, slapping at his arm. It's sort of like overhearing two women in a dressing room: "Hey, does this dress make me look fat?" "No way—you look hot!"
Despite the exchange, there is a tranquility about the Catheters when they're not onstage tearing it up. Brian rarely speaks—in fact, his lanky form disappears back to the van during our interview—and Derek gets visibly skittish when the recorder goes on. Davey and Leo are clearly the more outspoken members of the group. Maybe it's a rhythm section bond.
"Brian and Derek are both shy, but Brian's the shiest," Leo notes. "You know, you got all these guys who are 19, 20, and they've got hormones, and that's all," explains Davey, shrugging matter-of-factly.
"HOW Y'ALL DOIN' TONIGHT?"
Of the three shows I witness the Catheters play this week (one in Brooklyn, one in Washington, D.C., and tonight in Manhattan), this is by far the most dynamic. It's also the first time Brian has spoken to the crowd apart from the occasional "thank you." Following up, "Been There Before"— a fast, frenetic track from their six-month-old album—he politely inquires, "How y'all doin' tonight?"
Quickly, the band kicks into the rib-rattling tempo of "Nothing," all snarling vocals, Southern-fried guitars, and drum 'n' bass vitriol.
Suddenly, the catlike Brian walks calmly to the front edge of the stage—for the first few songs of a show he typically faces sideways, as if preparing himself to face the audience—and leaps off into the crowd, where he starts whipping his body with the exuberant abandon of a speed freak who's just won the Lotto.
At this point, everyone in the band has sweat pouring out of their skulls; their limbs are churning, and they're looping into each other like a mad parade. Derek is smiling to himself as he throttles his fretboard. Brian leaps back onstage, chugging a Rolling Rock before the group plows into the slow, drawling soundscape of "Bleary Haze"—churning out a sleazy, grinding rhythm that would make Mudhoney proud.
The crowd at the Mercury, though, isn't quite ready for the high-decibel distortion Seattle's musical community has trafficked in for the last two decades. Many in attendance are plugging their ears; others are frozen and slack jawed at the sheer volume. They want to rock, but it doesn't seem like they know how. Which is why it's even funnier to see the Catheters plow through their set list, hellbent on a bit of beautiful destruction.
Then comes the magic moment: Brian dives onto a table to the right of the stage, his Converse knocking into candles and pint glasses while he hangs onto a pipe for balance. Kicking and teetering on the edge, he runs down a series of tables before jumping back to the floor, somehow managing to avoid the beer bottles he's sent rolling into oblivion. This is by far the most expressive he gets, musically or socially. The stage proves his forum. So, too, with Derek, who plays with an intensity that could strip paint.
The normally reserved half of the band is on fire tonight, living it up.
"NICE ORGANIC CURLS!"
"If you don't fucking make a move by the time I finish this smoke, I'm gonna walk out the door," declares Eamon Sfitch, the Catheters' unruly merch man. We're all cooped up inside an Ethiopian coffeeshop in Washington, D.C., avoiding the city's 95-plus-degree heat while waiting for the venue they're playing tonight to open. Eamon is taking on Derek in possibly the slowest game of checkers this side of a nursing home. "I started smoking this cigarette, and you hadn't moved, and now I'm almost done with it, and you still haven't moved," he groans.
This is a common Catheters dilemma—one person thinking too much, holding up the rest of the group's adrenaline and aggravating the laws of inertia. Eamon, who has raging red curls and a sort of "Who the fuck are you?" countenance, is the band's comic relief and camp counselor as much as their T-shirt warlord.
A cop car and a pair of ambulances zoom by the coffeeshop window, followed by a second police unit pulling up to investigate the alleyway across the street. "More cops hassling the graffiti guy," Eamon mumbles, pointing to a man painting a mural in the alley. "Our nation's capital has a lot of police activity. What's up with that?"
Later, as he and Leo walk down U Street's long, dirty blocks, two African-American women waiting for the bus check out the guys' identical white-boy 'fros. "Nice organic curls!" one hollers approvingly. They seem to blush.
To hear them tell it, Leo and the rest of the band have always had a bit of a hard time overcoming their, uh, vive la difference.
"The Catheters were still on the Eastside playing rock, when all the other stuff [around] was really punk," he recalls. "Because we were on the Eastside, it seemed like people in Seattle were [condescending], like 'Whatever, you guys are from the Eastside. We don't like you rich kids.'" Still, as they progressed as a band, they learned to stand up for themselves.
"If you've got a problem with my band because I live on the Eastside . . . ," Davey snorts derisively. He looks down and fiddles with a beer. He tells me that he and rhythm section mate Leo dropped out of high school, while Brian and Derek are students at the University of Washington. All four are still finding their personalities, but their kinship is palpable; they seem most fulfilled when playing their souped-up sludge.
Their Sub Pop debut, Static Delusions, was recorded in a 36-hour period with local superproducer John Goodmanson at the helm. Its crunchy guitars and buzz-saw vocals could fill a room; each song is a no-frills, unadorned venture into a shopworn garage ethos. Listening to the record, it feels as if it's 1990 all over again. Preacherlike howls, heavy toms, gleefully ripped-up notes—the stuff the Northwest was once made of.
"We all have different ideas, and [John] was really open to [all of them]," Davey says of the Catheters' studio time. "Like, if one person brought up an idea, and somebody else would bitch about it, he'd say, 'Hey, let's try it' or offer another suggestion. It was basically like he was baby-sitting us, but in a really good way. He'd make sure we didn't kill each other, but also he understood out of all of our ideas which one was the best to try."
"I WANT YOU TO SEE NEW YORK'S SKYLINE, MAN."
On the lonesome early-morning drive from D.C. to New York, there aren't any loud guitars blasting anywhere. Leo is behind the wheel, happily humming along to the Grateful Dead as the others sleep. He turns the A/C up to keep himself awake.
Does it bother him that he's the only one up for the long drive? "Nah, it's cool. You can play the shit you wanna listen to. I can't listen to rowdy music when I'm driving or else it makes me really anxious," he says. "I start thinking about too much stuff. I need some mellower stuff. When I'm the one driving, I'm like the ultimate DJ on the radio."
Behind us, Brian and Davey are crashed out in the back, their sleeping bags forming a kind of shield. In front of them, Derek and Eamon are sacked out on bench seats. The bedraggled van, which used to be dubbed "White Castle" but is now called "Magnus" after a Swedish former roadie, rolls into the New York City area at about 5:30 a.m.
"We've called it the Bad Luck Tour because our van broke down in California and we spent three days waiting to get it fixed," Leo explains. "We missed some shows because of that, and now we're having some engine trouble."
Exiting the New Jersey Turnpike, he tells me to wake up Eamon, who sits up, bleary-eyed. "I want you to see New York's skyline, man," Leo says, almost like a proud father. "Thanks, I do," Eamon replies, suddenly alert.
The rest of the van's passengers slowly come to life as we prowl through Times Square at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.—too early even for rush hour and the tourists heading for Today. As the city slowly yawns and finds it legs, the band is already on the prowl and making noise.
New York may not be ready for the Catheters, but the Catheters are ready for New York.
The Catheters play Bumbershoot, EMP Sky Church at 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 31. $20.